Rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t seem too far from country music. They share mostly the same roots, but for some reason, it feels like the two shouldn’t commingle. Rock is jagged around the edges, marked by guitars crunching against crashing drums. Country is smooth and soft, telling stories of a spurned lover and what could have been. Occasionally, rockers make the transition from rock and roll to country, namely Darius Rucker and Steven Tyler, but seldom, if ever, is the transition from country to rock ‘n’ roll made successfully. With his new album SOUND & FURY, however, Sturgill Simpson looks to change that.
Hazy, psychedelic country subverter Sturgill Simpson has always toyed with the idea of rock music. He even covered Nirvana’s “In Bloom” to dazzling results. There, he pulled “In Bloom” into his reverb-drenched, psych-country world, transforming the iconic grunge track into something uniquely his own. With SOUND & FURY, he does the opposite. Simpson pushes himself into the world of rock and roll, taking artifacts from his previous work along for the journey.
SOUND & FURY may be Simpson’s first full-fledged attempt at rock music, but you wouldn’t guess it. It sounds like he’s been honing his rock skills for years. He takes signature haze and replaces it with smoke. That is to say, where his music used to transcend, it now slices and cuts. This is the kind of music made for ripping down a western highway in the early hours of the morning. It’s slick, it’s greasy and, most importantly, it’s fresh. Lead single “Sing Along” is the perfect introduction to this new era in Simpson’s career. Deliriously distorted guitars are accompanied by beefy bass guitar and warbling synthesizers, providing the post-apocalyptic backtrack that Simpson’s vocals need as he bellows lines “Compromise is made out of peace / But history’s made out of violence / After the war of the world’s has ceased / All that’s left is deafening silence.” Simpson maintains his signature vocal twang, but instead of stretching his words as he used to do, he cuts them in half, wasting no time to say what he needs to say.
What’s most impressive about SOUND & FURY is Simpson’s ability to maintain consistency between all of his releases. He continues to drop knowledge like on his previous releases, but now he’s twisting it to a darker reality. On “Make Art Not Friends,” he warns, “it’s getting hard to find a good friend / So close the door behind you / Before anyone come in / Nobody writes, and nobody calls / Nobody bother, cause I’m over it all.” This is not the Sturgill Simpson of yore: This a totally new man, one that is suspect of the newly-realized fame he has achieved.
This wariness is a just fit for the strung-out, apocalyptic feel of this album. It all culminates with “Mercury in Retrograde,” a steamy, synth-driven song that ruminates on fame and all the bullshit that goes with it. It’s one of the more “country rock” songs on the album in terms of sound, with a full string section and twangy, distorted guitars, but that’s a good thing. It’s softer vibe nicely contrasts searing lyrics like “Living the dreams makes a man wanna scream” and “Oh, the road to Hell is paved with cruel intention / If it’s not nuclear war, it’s gonna be divine intervention.”
If anything, Sturgill Simpson’s experimentation on SOUND & FURY shows that he’s fully capable of making any kind of music he wants, something that the country overlords in Nashville did not take kindly to upon the release of his second and third albums. This release is a big, fat middle finger to the country music industry. If they don’t want to accept Simpson, that’s fine. He doesn’t want them to anyways. If the rest of the country scene doesn’t want him, that’s fine, too, because on SOUND & FURY, Simpson does rock ‘n’ roll as good as or even better than he does country music.